Mexico Catches Leader of Familia Drug Gang

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Mexico arrested Familia head Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias ‘El Chango,’ in another blow to the already reeling criminal group, chalking up a result for the Federal Police.

Mendez was arrested at a police checkpoint in Cosio, Aguascalientes, a small north-central state not typically considered to be part of the Familia’s core territory. Following the detention, which was carried off without violence, Mendez was sent to local federal facilities, and then flown to Mexico City.

The authorities are hailing Mendez’s capture as a death blow to the Familia, one of most powerful criminal organizations to appear in recent years. It emerged from the remains of the Milenio Cartel around the middle of the previous decade, and was initially concentrated in Michoacan, a Pacific Coast state with one of the nation’s largest ports and vital trafficking routes. Later it would spread to the surrounding regions, such as Mexico State and Guanajuato. With its heavy reliance on extortion and its quasi-religious veneer, the Familia was noticeably different from gangs that had previously dominated Mexico’s underworld.

However, the Familia has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, leading some to conclude that it is a spent force. Mendez is the highest-level Familia capo to be killed or arrested since the December 2010 death of leader Nazario Moreno, alias “El Chayo.” Federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire said that with this latest capture, “what was left of the command structure of this criminal organization is destroyed.”

President Felipe Calderon and Poire first celebrated the arrest on Twitter, and Poire later called a press conference to give further details on Mendez’s capture.

As well as serving as a coup for an administration in need of some good news on public security, the arrest also has the potential to reshape the criminal landscape in Mexico. Following the death of Moreno in December, Mendez split with Familia boss Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta“, and each took a sizable chunks of the group’s assets with him. Gomez announced the formation of a gang called the Caballeros Templarios in March, while Mendez continued to call his group the Familia.

For the past several months, the two have been locked in a power struggle for control of Michoacan and other areas where the Familia holds sway, culminating in the violence that killed dozens of people around the state last weekend. The recent violence likely explains why Mendez was so exposed: operating far from his home state, and presumably travelling without a large group of bodyguards.

Now, with Mendez out of the way, the playing field in Michoacan and other states where the two men had influence will likely tilt toward Gomez and his clique, and perhaps even calming the fighting in the state.

Mendez’s arrest could turn out to be a rare case in which the removal of a capo leads to a lessening of violence. One of the widely held criticisms of Calderon’s kingpin strategy — which focuses on capturing or killing gang leaders — is that it often causes more violence. The theory is that longstanding capos serve as forces for stability, and their removal sparks a mad and ruthless dash to take over the fallen leader’s network.

This dynamic is set in motion when a death, or arrest, removes a single powerful figure from an area, creating a power vacuum. In Michoacan, however, the prevailing scenario was one of too many would-be bosses struggling for control. As a result, Mendez’s absence could create a calmer situation, with a single leader faction in charge of the Familia’s old territory. If Gomez and his clique absorb Mendez’s area of influence without prolonged fighting, the result could be greater tranquility in the region.

Mendez’s arrest adds to the growing list of scalps gathered by the Federal Police. In less than two years the agency has been responsible for the takedown of top capos, including the death of Nazario Moreno; the arrest of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias “La Barbie” (who actually turned himself in); and the arrest of Tijuana boss Teo Garcia. More recently, the Federal Police essentially dismantled the leadership of Cuernavaca’s South Pacific Cartel, and their deployment in Juarez has coincided with a sizable drop in the murder rate in that border city.

While the agency’s boss, Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna, remains a highly controversial figure and an emblem of Calderon’s troubled fight against organized crime, recent history suggests that the Federal Police may have developed an operational capacity that they had previously lacked.

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